Children and Fire - Ursula Hegi NO SPOILERS!!!

Through Chapter Two and a little more: Yesterday I finished the marvellous memoir A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan by Netofer Pazira. I gave it five stars, but having just finished a memoir, I wanted a novel. But which? I had read all of the books loaded into my Kindle! Since I am so picky about how an author writes, I checked my GR list of books that are available on Kindle, deciding to sample a few until I found one I could not put down. I found it - Ursula Hegi's new historical fiction entitled Children and Fire. It portrays a wonderful teacher, a teacher of 10-year-old boys in a Catholic school, who is convinced that her kids should join Hitler-Jugend! How are we going to feel about a woman who is a marvellous teacher but is misguided?! How has she been fooled, and how did the German people get fooled by Hitler? It takes place on one day – February 27, 1934, one year after the burning of the Reichtag in Berlin. This was Shrove Monday, the end of the festivities before Lent. Every student and even the teacher remember exactly what they were doing when they heard of the burning. The shock they felt, and the fear that Hitler induced in them, this fear and hatred for the Communists, is vividly portrayed. We know now that the Communist/anarchist Van der Lubbe was not responsible, but this was not known then. Hitler accused the Communists to create fear and hatred. He did it for his own purposes. A year later the children were still scared that the Communists might come and burn their school, their homes, their…..Hitler was an adept manipulator of fear.

What I immediately noticed in reading just a few chapters of the sample was that the writing is intelligent, compassionate and humorous. Even serious topics can be humorous. Bruno's father exclaims that Hitler should be hung up by his balls, or maybe just one, if rumours are correct! I read samples from other books about us adults…… Really, they were so depressing - married couples having affairs, discrimination against blacks, rape and whatnot. I am not saying this book about the build up to the Second World War is light reading, but the difference is that some of the people portrayed, the school children and their teacher Thekla are good people, perhaps misguided and confused by events, but their hearts are in the right place. I really cannot take a book filled with depravity and coarseness when no characters make any effort to at least try and be good people. I don't mind mistakes, but I dislike reading about people who are not even attempting to be good or moral or kind. Such is just too dam depressing!

And I love Thekla's view on premarital sex and sensuality. Both the belief that God created the earth in six days and the sin of pre-marital sex could be thrown out together with the dirty dishwater! I simply adore Ursula Hegi's ability to string together words in an amusing, compassionate and intelligent manner.

One more thing - Thekla is one of those teachers that stands out above all the rest. We all look back at our years at school and if we have been lucky we will remember one teacher, maybe two, that meant the world to us. She teachers her students a given subject right when that topic captures their interest. On the curriculum she should be teaching "Lent", but what does she teach? Geography! Why? Well, because the students want to know where Berlin is. How close is it to their homes? How can you teach about the importance of giving up more food when poverty is strangling them? Acquaint yourself with this teacher:

She loves them all: the boys with crossed eyes and crooked teeth; the brainy boys and the beautiful boys; the boys from good families and the boys with "Rotznasen" – runny noses -who've been born into families with something as basic as wiping your nose is not done for you when you're little, and you never learn how to do it for yourself. Like the Führer. This is where he came from, and the uniform can't cover that. His skin may be clean and dry, but he'll always have "Rotznase". It's a way of living, a way of having been brought into life. (7%)

15% through the book: When I read a good book, I want to share my thoughts with others. I have noted that when I really like a book my reviews tend to get longer and longer. Gundula, here is a message just for you. This book discusses legends and myths and poetry and famous German authors. I just learned of Friedrich von Schiller who wrote "Der Taucher" – "The Diver". You will learn why the children decided to change the name of their classroom frog from Copernicus to Icarus. And poetry hasn't spoken to me before?!

Who is Fraulein Siderova? I know she was the boys' teacher before Thekla, but why is she no longer the teacher. It was her that started the routine of teaching the children one poem every week. They were not ordered to memorize the stanzas. Oh no! She aroused the children's curiosity so they wanted to recite the poem, so they each felt compelled to seek the meaning of the poem for themselves. Hegi pushes her readers just as Fräulein Siderova and Thekla pushed their students, by arousing our curiosity to seek out the answers. Here follows another example:

But the midwife, Lotte Jansen, knew there was no God. Of course, she kept this secret from the nuns who employed her to bring life into the world. At the St. Margaret Home, she was known for her kindness and skilful hands, but most of all because not one single death happened on her watch. It was said that her great tragedy protected anyone she touched because death would be embarrassed to come near her again.

In the dining room of the Home hung a diptych of St. Margaret. In the first panel, the patron saint of pregnant women was swallowed by a dragon. Actually, it was the devil disguised as a dragon – by divine preordination, so it was said – St. Margaret clutched her book-size cross as she was being sucked down the tunnel of the dragon's throat. The edge of her cross scraped and pierced the lining of the dragon's throat, causing his engorged body to contract, a brutal reminder – the midwife thought – to the pregnant Girls of what they had yet to endure. That's why she advised them to sit with their backs to the picture while they ate.

I do not know any than you how this connects to the plot. I only know that this is a flashback to 1899 to the St. Margaret Home on the North Sea. Lotte Jansen, is she related to Thekla Jansen? Questions???? I do know what is painted on the second panel of the diptych so I amon the way to find out how this is related to Thekla, her boys and Burgdorf, Germany. As I page through the table of contents I see that there are many flash backs, these chapters alternating with the events that take place February 27, 1934, i.e. one year after the burning of the Reichtag.

OK, I finished the book. Yes, I liked it, but for me three stars feel adequate. There is very good character development. The characters are multidimensional. For a while I thought Thekla was "holier than thou", but then she too fumbled and was brought down to earth. There are many characters. You have Thekla, her mother and father, the nuns, teachers, the students, villagers and friends. You learn to know the characteristics of all of these people. Maybe, a few less would have been better.... The relationships are complicated. You read the book to understand these relationships.

One can also choose to read this book for its excellent portrayal of how teaching should be done. However I felt the message got a bit preachy, a bit redundant, a bit too much of a lecture.. On the other hand, the reader is given interesting informations about a wide range of German authors.

I think Hegi's Stones from the River was better.